The Rube Goldberg Factor

Sitting around feeling a little restless on a Saturday night (but not quite restless enough to go out and do anything), I was laying on the living room couch, listening to music from the 1940s and 1950s on KABL, and looking around the room, noting that most of the technology in my living room was available 20 years ago (and was widespread 15 years ago).

It started me pondering some rather odd technologies from my lifetime, all of which might have become “the next big thing” had not their timing been a little off or their operation just a little too convoluted.

  • Remember those adapters which used to let you play cassette tapes on your car’s 8-track player? Those were just plain bizarre, not to mention a good way to destroy both your cassettes and your 8-track player. Nothing ever sounded quite right either.
  • Cable FM radio was a strange service I had in Charlotte back in the 1980s. Not that I paid for anything so stupid, but it was pretty easy to rig by splitting the signal which ent to your TV. It was a little pointless in an urban area where all the radio reception was fine anyway. An unintended advantage for me was that it provided a high-fi audio signal for TBS (which was on cable TV channel 6, a frequency just adjacent to the lower end of the FM radio dial). I think they also (on purpose) delivered the audio sgnal for MTV (and maybe HBO) this way.
  • How about TVs which still had mechanical tuners, but disguised them as push-buttons and allowed you to put whatever channel wherever you wanted it. I still have one of those, actually, but I don’t have the sheet of replaceable channel numbers anymore.
  • A funny-looking thing which may or may not have had an actual purpose: those linear-tracking turntables which hung vertically so that the record spun facing you.
  • Even funnier: record-changer turntables which played one record, and then dropped the next one on top of it and played that one. At the end of an hour or so, you had four moderately-scratched records spinning at about 15% below their normal speed.
  • Before microwaves were common, we had boiling bags, those individual servings of a meat patty in gravy in a plastic bag which you boiled for ten minutes or so. Of course, this required food which was thin and didn’t have a shape which needed maintaining.
  • The best strange food technology, though, was the McDLT from McDonald’s. Of course, the whole McSystem at that time involved pre-cooking sandwiches which sat in a heated holding bin until served. Thus, lettuce and tomato together on a sandwich was unworkable; it left a soggy, wilted mess. That is, until the McDLT, which came in a two-chambered styrofoam package, with the meat and cheese on one side and the lettuce and tomato on the other. It could sit in the bin for the standard “ten minutes” and it was a very odd thing indeed when served.
  • Until about 1985, tone dialing (which is now standard) was an option, it cost more, and it wasn’t available everywhere. For about five years or so, there were these hybrid tone-pulse phones. They had pushbuttons but interfaced with the phone company in the old-fashioned pulse system (and took forever doing so). You could also switch modes during the call so you could dial in and use long-distance services which needed tone-dialing.

Anyone have any other strange technologies from the recent past? I don’t mean dead technolgies (like Beta, which was actually superior to VHS), but ones which died quickly just because they were so fucking weird or Rube Goldberg-esque? Mention them here. Do it now, before I start talking about the Kinko’s Oversize Fax Network…